Boston’s best game still not enough to beat Thunder

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The good news: The return of Kendrick Perkins and the challenge to match up to one of NBA’s elite teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder got the Celtics to play their best game of the season.

The bad news: Oklahoma City 97, Boston 88.

Maybe the highlight for Boston fans was the video tribute to Perkins at the first time out, which was followed by a standing ovation. They really could have used a little of his fire tonight.

Boston is now 4-8 with five straight losses, the first time that has happened in the “big three” era. This season in Boston is starting to feel like so many of the Celtics games in it — they have dug themselves a hole with a slow start and now have to fight their way out of it just to make the playoffs.

It was far from perfect, but it was the best game Boston had played in total this season. Rajon Rondo nearly had a triple-double (12 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds) and Mickael Pietrus was a gunner off the bench with 14. The Celtics defense looked the best it had this year.

But this much was clear — Oklahoma City was so much more athletic, more physical so much younger and more energetic. Rondo is the best player on the Celtics and yet at several times and when the game mattered most he could not stop Russell Westbrook. Put simply, the Thunder were better.

This game felt like so many Celtics game this year — not all of Boston’s big three seemed to click (Paul Pierce was on an finished with 24 but Ray Allen seemed to disappear) and Boston struggled at the start. Then the bench came in and couldn’t keep up the scoring pace (Marquis Daniels was the first bench player to score, more than three minutes into the second quarter) and soon it was a double-digit hole for Boston to fight back from.

They did. Pierce led a charge at the end of the first half to keep it close at the break. In the third quarter Doc Rivers experimented with a small lineup (Brandon Bass at center) and that got some fast break points. As the game wore on, Boston’s defense stiffened and they cut the lead to 78-76 with 5:10 left. Boston was forcing the Thunder to shoot jumpers.

The problem is, Kevin Durant can still knock them down. Durant had 28, and when Boston closed out on his jumpers he drove and had a dunk and created other good looks. Then in the role of third scorer usually played by James Harden, defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha dropped 19.

But in the end it was Westbrook and friends. The Thunder had been 3-of-15 from three on the night but with the game close late they hit four straight including a couple of daggers from Westbrook, who had 26 points and broke out a new three-point celebration (holstering his gun then… doing something with his hands, I’m not sure what exactly, but it was intentional).

For Oklahoma City, this is what is expected now, their stars stepping up in the clutch to win tough games on the road.

Boston tried to rise up to meet that challenge. They came close but not close enough. It’s a long season, one where it is far too early to write off these Celtics. But until they can get the big three all going at the same time and some kind of bench help, a lot of nights are going to look like this one.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.

Tyronn Lue doesn’t hold back with retort to heckling Pacers’ fan

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It’s a part of the NBA experience that most fans don’t get to hear — some fans courtside heckling opposing players and coaches, and those guys occasionally firing back. We only tend to hear about it when things cross a line.

Sometimes the interactions are just funny, such as this one passed along by J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Well played, Lue.

Although is Cleveland really a city at the forefront of fashion? Well, I suppose if you went to college in Nebraska…

Report: Pelicans picked up Alvin Gentry’s option for next season before sweep

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Last summer the buzz was all over the league: Pelicans GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry were given a “playoffs or bust” mandate by management. If the Pelicans were not in the postseason — and just barely getting in and then blown out in the first round might be good enough — there was going to be a housecleaning.

The Pelicans made the playoffs as the six seed with 48 wins despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles midway through the season.

That alone was good enough to get Gentry another season in New Orleans, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

As noted, this happened before the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers out of the first round and into a summer of re-evaluation. This option season is the last of Gentry’s original deal with the Pelicans.

Gentry has the Pelicans playing fast, using the elite defense of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to get stops, and right now Davis is leading an offense that is just getting it done, with guys such as Nikola Mirotic stepping up. Gentry has earned another year, and a shot to integrate Cousins into this style and level of play, to see where that could take New Orleans next season.

It will be interesting to see if Demps can add more shooting and versatility with a capped out roster.